As a chef, I value feedback from my customers. It is even more welcoming when it is justified because it gives me the chance to better understand the food I cook and my customers’ expectations.
There are however two types of criticisms that do not sit well with me – 1. A critique about me not meeting my customers individual palates or unique preferences, 2. That the technique and quality should have been done better. The latter stings the most. I berate myself when I pass off a dish that while competent, is not up to scratch and I get called out on my bulls**t.
My recent foray into Tanuki Raw at Orchard Central, led me to think that I have been sold a raging river of questionable food blogs (Influencers marketing) and super-trendy-super-hip-ultra-hype.
I took my sous chef Jennifer, her partner and Cheryl out for a congratulatory dinner as Jennifer had won the silver medal at the Food and Hotel Asia Team Gourmet Challenge 2016. I was very proud of all her hard work and dedication and wanted a dining extravaganza that would excite and surprise, an experience that would open up the process of creativity so that we could expand our culinary knowledge and maybe get us contemplating on an idea or two for the next competition.
A quick internet search revealed that the name tanuki refers to a Japanese raccoon dog with an ancient association to the magical and supernatural. In mystical tradition, it is known to carry magical abilities the likes of an illusionist or a trickster . “The tanuki …. changes its form for the sake of tempting people, tanuki do so to fool people and make them seem stupid”. Never have there been truer words than this, when referencing my dining experience at Tanuki Raw.
To explain the illusion, it is pertinent that you understand the three sections of a magician’s act: the Opener, the Middle Ground and the Closer. Follow me as I lead you through the illusion that is Tanuki Raw.
The Opener (a fast and flashy distraction that catches the audience’s attention), or set-up in this case, was quite convincing; bustling crowd, hip modern industrial interiors, cyberspace white noise (see food blogger chatter), al fresco dining, hipster menu layout , expensive prices, good sake selection, $2 oyster happy hour and a pinch of trendy diners and *Instagrammers photo-documenting every course. The stage is set and the illusion begins.
* Disclaimer – I fall into said category and as such have become an unknowing participant of setting up and creating the apparition of a dining utopia.
Everything seemed above board so this place must be the real deal right?
Let’s move on to the second act, the Middle Ground; this is the meat and bones of the show. The food in this instance will take center stage and here is where the kitchen begins its sleight of hand. This is where the illusion (assuming you have a vast food knowledge), begins to crumble.
Foie Gras Truffle Yakiniku (Grilled Meat) Don buri – Pan seared foie gras , onsen egg , short rib, truffle soy and Japanese rice
Yakiniku is traditionally cooked on a Shichirin (Japanese BBQ grill) over Ogatan (charcoal sawdust briquettes). However, for our first trick, we were presented a sous vide short rib that had been pan-finished or lightly blowtorched. Imagine sous vide satay without the smokey char from the fuelled charcoal flames and you will have the general idea – that stuff doesn’t fly at a food court and won’t fly here.
The dish lacked seasoning, begging me to question if the illusion was a hidden ploy to suggest that if you have to ask for salt, you clearly cannot appreciate the delicate umami flavours at play.
I was told by the waiter they do not have salt in the dining room so he would need to ask the kitchen for some. After a liberal dose of salt, the taste was satisfactory but still, unmemorable.
Uni Donut – Sea urchin , onsen egg on a Tanuki style pull apart donut with crispy bonito flakes and seaweed
Our next trick and probably the best of the Middle Ground segment had been recommended by countless “independent” bloggers. Sadly the taste was a sore miss; once the egg and uni were gone all that was left was a dry donut labouring to find its purpose underneath.
Instgram This Maki – Yakiniku steak, avocado, tamago and bacon maki topped with ketchup and onions.
Catchy name ain’t it? I have to admit that the name itself did get us hyped up. Smart move Tanuki Raw. Surely this would be a dish of redemption. Perhaps it would appease our wanting tastebuds or at least provide one extraordinary Instagram-worthy photo.
Alas, the presentation was uninspired. The lack of originality taunted the photo filters and glamour glows I threw at it as the possibility of a good snapshot cascaded from my hands like a Russian shuffle.
It tasted like a burger, just not a very good one and there was that term again – Yakiniku (I wonder how long I have to wait till McDonald’s starts referring to their patties as Yakiniku patties to illicit some hipster street cred).
Wham fries – Umami Gruyere melted over sweet potato fries topped with marshmallow
I picture this as being the ugly child of a drunken mistaken union between Epic Meal Time and Guy Fieri. What an abrasive grandstanding name. If I gave a hint of credence to those two shows, this should have been the greatest invention since the Croque Monsieur. Sadly it was just a crock.
While it makes for a good photo, the only thing it had going for it was its slightly quirky and interesting name. Just as a pretty picture doesn’t always tell the whole story, you won’t know how disjointed the flavours and textures of this dish are until you pop some in your mouth. But once you scrape off all the residual crud, the sweet potato fries tastes pretty good (though horribly under-seasoned; I was beginning to think the kitchen staff were allergic to salt).
Crack Wings – Fried chicken wings marinated in salted egg yolk and miso
Sadly not as addictive or as crispy as its name implies; one bite and the table erupted into a spirited discussion on where we could get some decent wings or some decent food.
It was hastily decided that the closest place with reliable food and reasonable prices was PasarBella at Suntec City. We quickly summoned our waiter, settled the bill and ran out the door without giving Tanuki San a chance to perform the Closer (that one final trick that usually leaves the biggest impression on the audience’s mind, allowing them to forgive you for any small mishaps during the show).
In this case the Closer would be to ply us with enough sake so that we forgot we ate there.
I reference a magicians term yet again as I look back and discover that our experience was the culinary equivalent of a Monte (a famous con game where three cards are thrown down and the mark, or in this case the customer, has to follow a chosen card but due to a sleight of hand, the mark never wins). The three cards in this example were the Trendy Crowd, the Influencers (food bloggers) and the Aesthetics. Suffice to say, the substance behind the theatrics was empty and void.
I had the distinct impression that my fellow diners and I had been hoodwinked. I will assume the gimmick of fusion was designed to misdirect diners from the lack of care in not only the flavour department (and its lack of flavour balance) but also the lack of respect for the ingredients and traditions from which those elements borrowed from. Instead of leaving in a state of disoriented pleasure, we left with the sense that we had just witnessed a disjointed and poorly articulated attempt to replicate Momofuku.
I am done being misdirected and made a fool of by the Japanese racoon dog. Once bitten, twice shy.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this review are based on my own personal experiences while dining at Tanuki Raw’s Orchard Central branch. As such, this is not a representation of the brand or any of its affiliates as a whole.